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Longer by Far

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Part I

 

            Derek frowned down at the book, trying to focus for another three more seconds before just giving up. He’d been trying to focus for four hours. It wasn’t going to happen. He should accept that and move on, go outside for a run or something.

            But Laura was taking the time to sit and work with him today so he couldn’t just go running off into the woods. Besides, he had already gone on a run that morning.

            So instead he glanced over to make sure Laura was at least pretending to be engrossed in the book she was reading before reaching into his pockets and pulling out the five pieces of paper he kept in there at all times. Though, even if Laura did see what he was doing, he doubted she would say anything about it. No one really said anything to him about it, except sometimes Jenny, and she only offered her own vague explanations as to why there were only five pieces of paper instead of the huge pile he wanted.

            It had been almost nine months and he had five letters from Stiles. They were all about a page long, filled with Stiles’ big, sloppy characters that Derek had watched develop over months of learning. Stiles had gotten faster at writing, but never neater and Derek’s heart did a weird flip just at seeing his name scrawled messily along the top. It was only because he had so much practice at reading Stiles’ handwriting that he was able to decipher the text at all.

            Of course, by this point he had every letter memorized so he didn’t need to focus too hard.

            They oscillated between being too generic and too specific. The first, which arrived about one month after Stiles left, gave the barest details of the camp, listing various people by job instead of name, mentioning only that they had begun planting and that Deaton may in fact be an evil genius. Two weeks later, the next relayed an incident in which Scott managed to break his ankle falling off a roof while attempting to help thatch it and was currently begging people to let him help even though his mother had sentenced him to bed rest and everyone knew it.

            The next, a full six weeks later, was probably the most satisfying as Stiles had actually taken the time to talk about himself, albeit only in relation to others. Stiles, Scott, and Isaac were living in their own cottage. Mrs. McCall had declared all of them too messy and loud and opted to stay with an older married couple for the time being, though Stiles mentioned that Scott was hoping to start building a place for her when he had the time. Stiles also wrote that he thought it would be a very long while until Scott had time for anything.

            Then there was another one, about three weeks later, that was, again, entirely too broad. The harvest had gone well, the new buildings Deaton had designed to hold the food had been completed on time, it was believed they had enough firewood to last the winter. Only the last line had showed any of Stiles’ personality at all, a simple: And there’s no peanuts here to worry about, so stop frowning.

            Derek had that line seared into his memory so much that if he closed his eyes, he could picture the words perfectly.

            And then there was the last one. Received another month later (about five months after Stiles had left) and it was short and lacked any detail whatsoever.

            Found Allison and her family. It’s a bit crazy here. – Stiles

            And then nothing.

            There were many reasons for that, Derek knew. Good reasons. Any mail coming out of the community had to be shipped secretly, obviously, and generally went through a different pack in the contingent every time to avoid suspicion and fall was a very busy time, getting ready for winter, especially when you were living in the woods with no modern electricity or heat and, yes fall was practically over, but winter was probably even harder so it wasn’t a big deal that Stiles hadn’t written to him in four months.

            It’s not like Derek had written to him again either.

            He hadn’t even been sure if he was supposed to write to Stiles, if Stiles would want him to write considering he was a werewolf and Stiles had left and yes, they’d had a moment as Stiles was leaving but Stiles was good at ignoring moments and Derek was good at following Stiles’ lead on these things. And if Stiles didn’t want reminders about his past life of slavery in the form of letters from Derek then he didn’t want to bother him.

            It had taken Jenny rolling her eyes, swatting him upside the head, and directly telling him to go get a pen and a notebook to make him write back the first time. Since then, he had written back every time Stiles had written him although he couldn’t make himself write one first. Not even now that he was practically desperate for information.

            His letters were truly terrible. He knew that. He had tried to write them differently, tried to write the letter that he wished Stiles was sending him, full of details about his days and what Cora had been up to or news on the abolition movement from their end. But… but they just fell flat. In part because his mother had told him not to put too much about the movement in writing and Cora’s pranks, which she still pulled quite regularly with Heather, seemed sort of like silly things to tell Stiles. However, it was probably mainly because, without Stiles, his days were simply not worth writing about.

            He tried to be happy, tried to put Stiles in the back of his mind as a fond memory, tried to focus on pack and enjoy spending time with Laura and Cora. He had spent months researching more and more about the pre-slavery history of werewolves, desperately searching for anything useful that he could pass onto his mother. When he’d finally admitted that almost all werewolf histories had been washed of anything remotely unbiased, he’d tried to go back to studying the biology of werewolves for Deaton. That hadn’t quite captured his attention either and Laura must have noticed because they began working on their Hale History again, which had been neglected for months.

            He got close to happiness, he thought. Some days when he could go into the kitchens and hang with Jenny and Simon and Dee and pretend that Stiles was nearby somewhere. Or when he and Laura ran together, talking during breaks about further steps they could take in the fight for human freedom. Or when he decided to help out Cora who had all but taken over the twins’ training. He could focus on the now and be happy and-

            It all went well until he got a letter from Stiles and then was expected to write back. Because then it all seemed stupid and there was no way to write to Stiles honestly without also saying that he missed Stiles so much sometimes it was like a physical wound in his chest and he wanted Stiles to come back so badly that he spent days staring into the woods, just hoping that somehow it would happen.

            Or at least, he wanted news. A letter. A note. Anything.

            Stiles was probably too busy to write, he told himself. And happy. He was probably happy living with other free humans and maybe he found someone else who wasn’t, you know, a fucking werewolf and he probably didn’t even really think about Derek anymore.

            That would make sense. That would be good.

            “You okay?” Laura’s voice interrupted his thoughts and he jerked his head up from where he had been staring at the last letter.

            Found Allison and her family. It’s a bit crazy here. – Stiles

            What did “It’s a bit crazy” even mean? Crazy in a good way? In a bad way?

            “Yeah,” Derek said, flushing and trying to seem casual as he carefully re-folded the letters. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just… got distracted for a second.”

            Laura’s raised eyebrow told him that he wasn’t getting away with that lie for a second but she didn’t say anything. At least not verbally.

            But the next moment, her face went square and she sighed and she smelled disappointed and maybe a little bit hurt and Derek tried to think of something to say. Because, fuck, he didn’t want to be like this.

            Laura wasn’t his Alpha yet, but she would be and, more importantly, she was his sister. He loved Cora and he adored having a little sister but for seven years, it has just been him and Laura. They’d spent their childhoods exploring the woods, secretly shifting even though they knew their mother would catch them, trying to hunt squirrels and pretending to be explorers lost in the wilderness. And then even when they’d outgrown those and Laura had to spend more time alone with Talia to start learning how to be a good Alpha, they still found time to talk and Derek was fairly sure this whole Hale History idea had been Laura’s idea of making sure they stayed connected.

            If asked a year ago, Derek would have said that Laura knew him better than anyone in the world.

            Now… well, it would be stupid to say that Stiles, who he hadn’t talked to in nine months and hadn’t even heard from in four months knew him better but…

            But he’d spent hours with Stiles. Hours with Scott and Stiles and Isaac and the kitchen staff and at one point he’d thought that Stiles understood him better than anyone. Stiles was constantly teasing him about his different types of frowning or laughing as he predicted what Derek was going to say before he’d even said it. And Stiles could make Derek smile. Easily. Without even trying.

            It was only when Stiles left that Derek realized how much he’d neglected Laura in his quest to make sure Stiles was happy. Sure, she had come around to do research with him and Stiles at times but Stiles wasn’t as comfortable when she was there and that made Derek uneasy and Laura had to have sensed it because gradually she’d stopped coming. And Derek hadn’t even thought to seek her out himself. Or even thank her.

            And now he wasn’t even talking to her. Not really. Not about anything important.

            He had to say something or the guilt was going to overwhelm him.

            “I just haven’t heard from Stiles in a while,” he said, fighting to sound casual. It was casual. It wasn’t a big deal.

            “Oh,” Laura said evenly but he could tell she was happy he had said something. Her scent had shifting into something pleased and maybe a bit excited. For a moment, he was worried he was about to be teased because she was his older sister and that’s what she did. That’s probably why he had avoided talking about it.

            He wouldn’t know what to do if she teased him about this. He found himself hunching his shoulders just in case. She frowned at the movement.

            “There wasn’t a letter in the last batch?” she asked tentatively.

            Derek’s heart gave a weird lurch. There had been another mail run? When?

            “When was it?” he asked, trying not to feel hopeful.

            “A few days ago,” Laura said. “I only heard about it because Cora got a letter from Isaac.”

            “Oh,” Derek said, hope falling. “No, I know about that one. No, I didn’t get anything.”

            There had actually been three deliveries in the past four months. Each time Cora had gotten a letter from Isaac and Talia had received letters from Deaton and one from Scott and Jenny had received updates from Melissa but… nothing from Stiles.

            The only thing that made him feel better was that Jenny hadn’t gotten one either.

            Maybe Stiles had decided to cut out his past entirely and just move on. Derek couldn’t even blame him if he did. The things that Stiles had been through during his eighteen years as a slave… well, Derek would understand.

            Or he would try to.

            “Well,” Laura said and here came the platitude, the excuse, the well-that-shouldn’t-be-a-big-deal. “That sucks.”

            Derek blinked at her. His shock must’ve shown on his face because she was smiling at him a moment later, rolling her eyes fondly.

            “Don’t look so surprised, baby brother,” she informed him. “Mom might’ve said not to bother you about it but it’s pretty obvious-”

            Derek didn’t get a chance to ask her what was pretty obvious because at that moment a car pulled up their drive, which had both he and Laura cocking their heads.

            Cars weren’t unheard of, but they were rare, an old technology from the days of humans that werewolves had gradually stopped using. Werewolves didn’t like to travel too far from their territory. Most would rather run or hike anywhere they had to go, were better with animals such as horses, and, put simply, travelling long distances simply required too much planning: getting permission from all the packs whose land you were crossing in advance or stopping to make your presence known at every one, making sure you had enough gas, which was expensive and rare, and, of course, just putting up with the god-awful smell for however long a time.

            The Hales had a car but the last time it had been used was almost a year ago when it had picked up Melissa McCall.

            “Wonder who it is,” Laura said, frowning and craning her neck as the car turned towards the side entrance. Derek shrugged. Doubtless, it was someone for their mom, maybe one of the other Alphas in the contingent, maybe there was even news of the village. But it probably wasn’t going to be news specifically on Stiles and it wouldn’t be mail delivery because using a car would be too ostentatious so… really, he was just grateful it had interrupted the previous conversation.

            He was better off when he didn’t think about Stiles. He really was.

            He turned his attention back to the book. They’d finally found their father’s ancestors, or at least what they thought were his ancestors. The name was spelled slightly different than his original last name- Davidson had been changed to Davison- but it was close enough that Laura and Derek agreed the information was probably valid. Of course, they could just ask either of their parents but the project had started as a sort of surprise gift and now Derek suspected they were both too stubborn to ask.

            He was just grateful to have new information to process, something to take notes on and focus on so he didn’t just around and-

            “Master Derek,” Harris’ voice was a bit out of breath but still retained its tightly controlled formality. “You’re needed in the reception room immediately.”

            Derek stared for a beat and then Laura hit him on the arm and he moved.

            Harris led the way, smelling worried and a bit aggravated but that was how Harris usually smelled so it didn’t exactly give Derek a clue as to what was happening.

            He had put out a request for some science equipment a month ago. That’s probably all it was. That was good, maybe he’d have something to report to Deaton in his next letter.

            Harris’ scent turned positively affronted as they walked up and Derek saw that the two werewolves were waiting outside of the reception room rather than in it. Derek frowned at them. He didn’t recognize either of them. Both were well-muscled, though one was much shorter than even Cora and both smelled of deep satisfaction.

            “Sirs,” Harris began, sketching a bow. “This is Master Derek. If you’d like me to-”

            “No worries,” the taller one interrupted. “We’re not staying. Just here to drop something off.”

            The small one was already heading towards the door, nodding at Derek.

            “Found something of yours,” the first one continued, then he was patting Derek on the shoulder, smelling pleased and smiling as if they shared some secret. “Hope you don’t mind we started on the way over.”

            Derek didn’t say anything. Couldn’t really as he had no idea what they were talking about. Luckily, the werewolf was gone in a moment, waving a hand over his shoulder as he left.

            Derek frowned after them, waiting a beat before waving Harris back and entering the room alone.

            There wasn’t a box. It wasn’t the microscope he’d wanted.

            It was a person. Wearing recognizable but unfamiliar gray pants and a sleeveless gray shirt, kneeling in the middle of the room, head covered in a black hood and-

            “Stiles,” Derek breathed, much too soft for a human to hear.

            He didn’t need to see his face. He would recognize Stiles anywhere- his back and arms and hands, tied together in front of him and-

            Derek had to move, he had to untie him, Stile was there and-

            He reached for the bag over his head first, wanting to see his face, wanting to make sure he was okay, that he was real.

            He grabbed for the bag, tearing it off too quickly though he was trying to be gentle and then suddenly Stiles was on his feet, his hands free, pushing Derek back.

            Stiles’ left cheekbone was red and there was a cut along his temple and his face was hard and determined until-

            “Derek?” Stiles sounded completely confused, but not panicked and he broke eye contact to scan the room, frowning in concentration. “What’re you…?”

            Then there was a burst of joy, the smell of it filling the whole room but Derek didn’t know if it was coming off of himself or of Stiles and for a moment he didn’t care, content to gape at Stiles and wonder how on earth he had thought that he could forget about Stiles.

            “Derek!” Stiles cried again, happier this time and Derek’s knees practically gave out with relief. Stiles didn’t hate him. He didn’t. He actually sounded excited-- a bit confused but excited and Derek moved forward, trying to close the distance between them at least a little.

            That’s when he realized his knees actually were giving out and Stiles’ face was swimming out of focus.

            “I can’t believe they brought me here,” Stiles was saying, or at least Derek thought he was. The world was going dark. Stiles must’ve seen the confusion on his face though because suddenly he was frowning again, eyes wide and scared.

            “Wait,” Stiles said. “Oh, shit.”

            That was the last thing Derek heard before blackness claimed him completely.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Stiles watched as Derek’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and he started to crumble, still reeling from the shock of opening his eyes to see Derek Hale standing in front of him.

            Luckily, his catching-instincts had been honed from six weeks of helping Scott hop around on one leg, so he managed to lunge forward to catch Derek as he collapsed.

            The muscles he’d acquired from planting stretches of crops, building cottages, and chopping more firewood than should be legal helped greatly as he attempted to lower Derek to the ground gracefully. Which he managed to do at least semi-decently.

            Oh god, he’d poisoned Derek.

            For a moment all he could do was sort of stare at Derek’s unconscious figure, wondering how on earth this had all happened so quickly. It had all been going according to plan. He’d been captured by a pack attempting to curry favor with Deucalion, they hadn’t bought his obviously bullshit story as to why he was on their lands, they’d ran his records, seen he was a runaway… Predictably, there had been a brief unpleasant period where they started his punishment a little early but then he’d been tied up and thrown in the back of a car and it had all seemed like it was going perfectly.

            He’d managed to untie himself using one of the thousand tricks he’d learned from others in the past eight months, re-tie himself loosely so it looked like he hadn’t, and then, also according to plan, use the element of surprise to douse the werewolf who was set to process him and knock him out.

            He just hadn’t planned on that werewolf being Derek Hale. Who was now unconscious. On the ground.

            “Derek!” Stiles called, giving him a shake even though anyone could see he was clearly out. Deaton had said the effects weren’t deadly, had promised to be careful as killing werewolves was expressly against Scott’s overall strategy but this was the first time they had actually used it and-

            It was probably an inappropriate time to be sort of smiling. But he was. He hadn’t even quite processed the whole situation yet, but seeing Derek’s face as the hood came off, looking shocked and confused and happy… well, that summed up how he was feeling at the moment too. He would really appreciate if Derek would just wake up so they could have a good laugh about this.

            Unless, of course, Derek didn’t think it was as funny as Stiles was finding it.

            That would be reasonable. They hadn’t seen each other in nine months. Stiles hadn’t written to him in almost four- well, he’d written but the letters hadn’t been sent so-

            “What is going on?” Talia’s voice sounded truly alarmed and she was two steps in the room before Stiles thought to warn her. “Stiles?

            “Wait!” he said, holding up his hands and idly hoping that the movement didn’t fling more of the powder into the air. Werewolves really needed to make more noise when they moved. He wasn’t sure his heart could take this many surprises in so short a time. “Don’t come in. It’s been… contaminated.”

            Luckily Talia had already stopped, sniffing the air quickly before stepping away.

            “What is that?” she asked, holding up a hand to cover her nose.

            Ah, so they could smell it, Stiles filed that information away for a later date. Surprise really would be essential.

            “It’s a powdered poison,” Stiles explained. Then shook his head frantically as he realized what that sounded like. “Not deadly! It should just knock him out for a few minutes.”

            If a werewolf kept inhaling it, it should keep them under for up to an hour, or so Deaton claimed, but obviously Stiles wasn’t going to be setting up any of the other packets he had strapped to his leg so… really, it should just be a few minutes.

            “Where did it come from?” Talia asked, frowning at him.

            “Held it in my hands for the most part,” Stiles said, looking back to Derek to see if there were any signs he would wake up soon. He wasn’t exactly afraid of Talia Hale anymore, they’d even exchanged some letters about tactical targets but… he’d still like Derek to wake up. Plus, Derek’s face, now that Stiles was more aware was going to be priceless to watch.

            “Oh, my hair too,” Stiles added. “That way it’s activated as soon as the hood comes off.” He was particularly proud of that part of the plan. Even Deaton had looked impressed when he thought of it.

            “You should probably move away from him then,” Talia suggested and she was somehow already completely calm again. It must be an Alpha thing. Stiles still felt as if this was some strange dream. Maybe it was. He had taken a few hard hits to the face earlier.

            “Stiles,” Talia said.

            Right, he was still kneeling next to Derek, one hand on his shoulder. Hurriedly, he stood and fled quickly to the furthest corner of the room, feeling his knees faintly protest. His body hadn’t exactly been treated well today. Spending three or four hours in the trunk of a car was not as restful as he had hoped it would be.

            But other parts of the plan had worked. So at least he’d answered some key questions about whether or not Deaton’s mixture of rhubarb, hemlock, and wolfsbane had the desired effect when inhaled by a werewolf.

            Stiles knew he had been right to trust Deaton. Scott would be pleased.

            Scott would probably also be pleased that Stiles’ exceedingly risky and controversial plan to be purposefully captured and processed into a rehabilitation camp for the sole purpose of discovering its location had failed.

            Stiles was more disappointed by that as they had already discovered one such camp and liberating the ten or so slaves held there about at the time was one of the greatest nights of his life.

            But he couldn’t be truly disappointed. Not when Derek was suddenly stirring, blinking awake, looking angry that he had even passed out.

            “Stiles?” he sort of mumbled as he sat up and Stiles found himself smiling again.

            “Mom?” As Derek sat up, he was facing his mother and so Stiles couldn’t see his face but he heard the frown in his voice.

            “Behind you,” Talia said and her face had softened into something like a smile as well.

            Derek twisted without bothering to stand so he was looking up and his eyes were wide and shocked for another second and then he was smiling- no beaming and it suddenly hit Stiles how much he’d missed Derek.

            It had taken Stiles months to be comfortable around Derek. It had taken him longer than it should have. And on some level he’d known that he missed Derek. At the beginning, it had been impossible to ignore. He found himself looking around for Derek when Isaac or Scott did something particularly funny and expecting Derek’s quiet, sarcastic, muttered comments inserted into conversations. But he’d gotten used to it. Or he at least ignored it enough until he assumed it had faded completely. Anyway, he’d been busy.

            There’d been planting to do and homes to build and new technologies to test and, once he’d finally convinced Scott, missions to run and most nights Stiles collapsed into what he called a bed too tired even to dream.

            Which was a good thing for him. He was happy. He just-

            Derek was sort of gaping at him and he knew he was grinning back stupidly.

            “Hey,” he said, hoping it came out casual instead of a bit panicked and nervous and awkward.

            God, the last time he had seen Derek, he had practically tackled him into a hug and told him that he would stay if Derek wanted him too and he might have maybe cried a little bit and-

            Fuck, he and Derek had never talked about… things between them. And Derek probably didn’t feel the same way anymore which was reasonable because Stiles didn’t even know how he felt because he had avoided this for months so he was probably still all fucked up but-

            It was Derek. And it had been nine months.

            Derek looked exactly like Stiles remembered him. He was still a hair taller than Stiles himself and Stiles knew he had been working in the library because his hair was sticking up at odd angles and his jaw was shaded with stubble that appeared even on the days Derek did bother to shave and his face might be smiling but his eyebrows still seemed pulled together in confusion and it was exactly how Stiles always pictured him.

            It was a relief. He hadn’t changed.

            “Don’t go towards him,” Talia said and Stiles jumped, realizing that he hadn’t even notice Derek take a few slow steps closer. “He’s poisonous.”

            “Oh!” Stiles said, trying to shrink back in the corner a bit more. “Right! Yeah! Sorry! I’m poison at the moment.”

            “You’ve been poisoned?” Derek said, the smile dropping from his face as he took another step closer.

            “No!” Stiles said and he should stop smiling. This wasn’t funny. “No, I’m poison. Covered in it. That’s why you passed out.”

            “Oh,” Derek said. “What?”

            “Yes, perhaps you should start from the beginning,” Talia said, stepping into the room enough to close the door.

            “Well,” Stiles said. “The plan was to get captured and be sent to one of the camps they have for previously escaped – or unclaimed – slaves and then use the magic dust-”

            “Why would the plan be to get captured?” Derek interrupted, full on angry frowning now. Oh god, he was going to hate this plan even more than Scott had.

            Stiles felt his jaw clench. He wasn’t going to have this entire conversation again.

            “Because it’s the fastest way to learn where they are,” he said firmly. “Three months ago, we found another but only by chance and we can’t wait around for that. These are the people who’ve already escaped once, who want to be free and who can help us. We have to start being more aggressive.”

            He was ready to continue if he had to. Convincing Scott had taken almost three hours and then not even Scott had been able to save him from a fairly severe lecture from Mrs. McCall that was an awful mixture of anger and worry that Stiles seemed to inspire in almost everyone these days.

            But Derek had dropped his head and shuffled back, clearly unprepared for Stiles’ shift in tone.

            “Oh, okay,” Derek said, nodding. “That’s… you’re right.”

            Stiles blinked, a bit taken aback despite himself. He was ready to argue and defend himself and-

            Instead he had just made Derek feel bad. Great.

            “Uh, anyway,” Stiles continued, wishing that Talia wasn’t standing right there so he could try starting this over. “Well, clearly, the plan was working except they brought me here instead of to the camp so…”

            He frowned. The only way that they would have known to bring him here was if his records still said that the Hales owned him. And that should have been impossible because it was much too dangerous to have escaped slaves tied back to the Hales. There would be questions as to why Talia hadn’t made the loss of a slave public knowledge or worked harder to find them.

            “I’m afraid that’s my fault,” Talia said. “Most of the paperwork was systematically lost to ensure that there would be few links back to our family but… well, a few were kept on file.”

            Stiles blinked at her, surprised. Records of escaped slaves were destroyed. It was tradition to protect from embarrassment and in their case, it was necessary to protect from discovery and it was a huge risk that apparently Talia hadn’t done it. Safer for the slaves in question, probably, but riskier for her, for her pack.

            “Well, so yeah,” Stiles said, choosing to ignore that particular fact for the moment. Derek looked just as confused as he was and he wasn’t grateful exactly as it had ruined this particular mission but… well, he also thought that Talia was trying to be nice in her own way so he couldn’t be mad either. “Now I’m here.”

            “You’re more than welcome to stay as long as you’d like, Stiles,” Talia said, nodding to him. “Derek, I’ll see you at dinner. Doubtless there are some… loose-ends to tie up from all this. Let me know if you feel ill from the effects of the plant.”

            “Sure,” Derek replied, tipping his head slightly to the side. “I will.”

            “I’m just glad Harris knew to get you first,” Talia replied, lips twitching up into a smile. “It seems to be quite effective.”

            She was gone before either of them to say anything. Not that Stiles would have been able to anyway because his brain was currently a little bit hung up on the fact that apparently Harris had seen him and gone to get Derek first.

            It was too much. He couldn’t handle that right now. His brain had already been shocked enough for one day.

            “You’re hurt,” Derek grumbled, looking miserable. For a moment, Stiles just stared at him. Hurt? No, he wasn’t, he was-

            Oh right. His face was a little more decorated than he would generally like it to be.

            Stiles rolled his eyes, almost laughing. He was barely hurt. He’d been hit maybe five times before the werewolves had declared him boring and tied him up. He honestly couldn’t even feel any pain at the moment.

            “Dude,” Stiles said, cracking a smile. “It’s nothing.”

            Derek looked ready to argue, his eyebrows pulling together just like Stiles remembered and it made him laugh. And then Derek was smiling and shifting like he wanted to come closer and-

            “I should go take a shower,” he blurted before Derek could say anything. This was too weird. He was happy to see Derek, but…

            Space. That’s what he needed. Space and just a moment to himself. To figure out how exactly he was feeling and what he wanted or at least a moment to remind himself that he couldn’t get what he wanted because who even knew what Derek wanted and there were still basic facts that couldn’t be changed. Facts like Derek was a werewolf and Stiles was…

            Stiles was... well, fuck it if he knew. But Scott had thrown him enough worried glances over the past five months or so that Stiles knew something was wrong with him even if Scott hadn’t quite come out and said it yet.

            “Right,” Derek said, taking a step back. Then he looked up and his eyes were tentative and hopeful. “I’ll probably have to go to dinner but… see you after?”

            “Of course,” Stiles replied, ignoring the fact that his chest felt warm. Derek didn’t hate him. Derek didn’t seem to mind the fact that nine months ago, they’d hugged and then Stiles had left and Stiles was awful at sending letters and had actually missed the last two or three pick-ups because he’d been out on missions and-

            A lot had happened.

            But Derek looked familiar and for some reason Stiles was excited to tell him all about it. To sit in the library in their back corner and fill Derek in on the details, or at least as much as he could in whatever time they had.

            “Okay,” Derek said. “See you then.”

            Stiles lifted his hand in a small wave, still determined not to accidentally knock Derek out again. He may have overdone it on making sure his hair was coated with the dust.

            As if he could sense his thoughts, Derek frowned at him. “No poisoning me next time.”

            He was gone before Stiles could wipe the grin off his face.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Jennifer’s first thought upon hearing the noise that came out of Dee’s mouth, which was half gasp, half squeal and entirely strange, was that the woman had hurt herself. Jennifer actually grabbed a nearby kitchen towel, ready to try to staunch the bleeding quickly, wondering how on earth Dee had managed to cut herself that badly while chopping up lettuce. She wasn’t even using a real knife!

            But in the moment it took Jennifer to grab the towel and turn towards Dee, Dee had moved, dropping the knife and launching herself at-

            Stiles.

            Stiles Stilinski was standing in the doorway to her kitchen. Dee was shooting at him and Jennifer knew Stiles, knew that he was about to tense a bit in the face of being touched and that he would probably hug Dee quickly before moving away but-

            But Stiles was already grinning at Dee and when she latched her arms around him, he didn’t seem to flinch but instead squeezed her back, eyes alight with laughter.

            “Well, hello, Dee!” he said, relaxed and happy and Jennifer couldn’t stop staring.

            Stiles had grown up.

            She knew that logically it had only been nine months and that Stiles had probably only grown an inch or two but… But he was older. He was wearing regular clothes - jeans and an olive green shirt - instead of his blue uniform and he was still a hair too thin in her opinion but the arms that were currently around Dee were muscled and healthy and there was a scar that ran up his left forearm that hadn’t been there before and-

            The smile that he sent her over Dee’s head was warm and open and happy and she-

            “What happened to your face?” she demanded, stepping around the island to get closer. His eye wasn’t black yet but it looked like it would be tomorrow and that was to say nothing of the cut on his temple that hadn’t scabbed completely over yet.

            When Stiles had first arrived at the Hales, the bruises on his face highlighted how young he was, emphasized his distrustful glares, made it painfully obvious that he was only pretending to be okay. These bruises didn’t have the same effect. When paired with his smirk and gleeful eyes, he looked more… goodness, he looked practically scandalous, a troublemaker with undeniable mischievous charm.

            Jennifer disapproved on principle even as she fought not to smile.

            “Gee, Jenny,” he said, releasing Dee and stepping towards her. “Can’t a boy get a ‘hello’ in this place?”

            Then he was moving forward, all confidence and suddenly she was wrapped up in a hug as well even though she was quite positive she was still furious.

            “No,” she said, shaking her head and keeping her arms at her sides. If anything, her words seemed to encourage him further- he squeezed her a little tighter, laughing from above her. “I can’t believe you!”

            “I know you missed me,” he said. “Dee’s already crying.”

            “I did not,” Jennifer declared, trying to sound stern. This boy was about to get a firm talking to.

            “We all did!” Dee supplied unhelpfully. “Oh god! Simon’s in the back! I’ve got to go get him!” Dee was gone the next moment.

            Stiles stepped back, still grinning at her as if that was going to make her forgive him.

            “Four letters,” she said, shaking her finger at him. “You’ve been gone nine months and I get four letters! Scott has sent eight! Even Isaac sent five!”

            Stiles had the good sense to look embarrassed, flushing a bit and looking at the ground. Jennifer almost broke. Because he suddenly didn’t look any older at all. Suddenly, it was a year and a half ago and he had somehow broken yet another dish.

            “I’m sorry,” he said, shifting. “I just… I’m really bad at them.”

            Jennifer just kept frowning. That was no excuse. Though it really was surprising, how a boy who could talk your ear off in person was so stilted when forced to write something down. Scott’s letters were always a bit shorter and littered with spelling mistakes but Stiles’ were… Stiles wrote as if his life was happening to someone else. And that someone wasn’t very interesting.

            And she had seen the letters he’d written to Derek. If anything, they were a thousand times worst. It was a wonder Derek bothered to carry them around at all.

            She’d been so worried. Worried that his letters meant he was unhappy and then they’d stopped coming and she’d worried even more and now he was standing in her kitchen, looking perfectly fine and-

            She was never going to forgive him.

            “I’ll do better!” he said and he was actually trying to smile at her right now. “I promise. Really. I just… didn’t know what you wanted to know about.”

            “Everything,” she said, resisting the urge to smack him. Him and his eyes which were pouting at her and she was going to start smiling in a minute. “You can write about anything, you hear me?”

            “I do. I’ll do better,” he said, nodding at her seriously. Jennifer couldn’t stop staring. He really did look so much older. Even with those ridiculous eyes he was giving her. Christ, he must have been practicing by studying Scott.

            “Oh, stop it,” she said, holding out her arms reluctantly. His triumph smirk right before he hugged her again told her that he knew exactly what he was doing.

            That was Stiles, always too smart for his own good.

            The cheeky bastard probably still wouldn’t write to her nearly often enough.

            “Stiles!” Simon boomed as he came in the room and again, Stiles jumped but didn’t flinch and he was already turning to hug Simon as well. Then he was content to lean back and listen to Dee try to both tell him a thousand stories and ask him a thousand questions at once, looking calm and happy and Jennifer knew that the nine months away had been good for him.

            She wished she could say the same about Derek. But the past nine months had consisted of Derek hovering around the edges of household, interacting but not truly engaging with anyone, human or werewolf. And even on the good days, the days where she knew that he tried to act normal, his smile just never quite reached his eyes.

            The Hales were eating now but a part of her wondered how Derek was even managing that when he knew that Stiles was downstairs.

            “Engaged!” Stiles’ voice broke through Jennifer’s thoughts. Stiles was practically jumping up and down with excitement, staring at Simon and Dee as if he’d never seen them before. “I didn’t even know you two were together!”

            Jennifer rolled her eyes. Anyone with a brain knew that Simon and Dee might as well have been dating for the past ten years. On the infamous drunk night, Scott had declared he was going to marry them. Luckily, Melissa had pulled him away before he actually said anything to either party.

            “Well,” Dee was blushing. “We got together after everyone left and… well he proposed after only two weeks!”

            “You weren’t waiting around!” Stiles said, grinning at Simon who looked a bit embarrassed.

            “If I didn’t do it, she would have!” Simon replied. “She’s completely mad for me, really.”

            “Oh stop,” Dee said, swatting at Simon casually.

            “So when’s the big day?” Stiles asked.

            “We’re going to wait a while I think,” Dee answered and the smile she directed towards Simon was a bit sadder than it was before. Jennifer felt her spirits dim as well. She’d never asked directly what it was they were waiting for but…

            Slave marriages weren’t officially recognized. And obviously Talia would let them hold a ceremony and would probably marry them herself if they asked but Jennifer suspected they were waiting for something else. Waiting until it could be something else.

            Stiles must’ve sensed the shift as well because Jennifer watched as he frowned, his happy demeanor shifting for a moment into something hard and determined and almost dark before sliding back into place.

            “Well, you’ll have to come to Beacon Hills to celebrate the engagement at least,” Stiles said.

            “Beacon Hills?” Jennifer asked.

            “Oh, Scott decided the camp needed a name,” Stiles explained. “Said it needed to be something that could inspire hope or something.” Stiles rolled his eyes in a way that was probably supposed to seem a bit exasperated but came out fond instead.

            “Oh! I agree!” Dee said, sounding thrilled.

            “It’s not even hilly,” Stiles admitted, earning himself a laugh from Simon.

            “I’m sure it’s lovely,” Dee insisted.

            “It’s nice,” Stiles agreed. Then suddenly he was looking up at Jenny, practically batting his eyes at her. “But… the food isn’t quite as good as it was here.”

            “Oh, now I see the reason you’re here,” Jennifer muttered, even as she moved towards the fridge. She suspected that she had the ingredients to make one of Stiles’ favorite dishes.

            “Why are you here?” Simon asked, looking curiously at Stiles.

            “Just a slight mishap,” Stiles said, shrugging one shoulder. “Not exactly planned but… it worked out.”

            Jennifer frowned but didn’t say anything. Neither did Dee or Simon. It was painfully obvious that that was all Stiles was going to say on the matter. At least for right now.

            “Well,” she tutted, wondering if she could force the truth out of him when they were alone again. Or if she should even want to. “I suppose I can throw together something for you.”

            “Thank God,” Stiles said. “Scott and I have been trying at our house but… it’s not going well.”

            “You boys have yourselves your own place now?” Simon said, sliding around Stiles to start cleaning the stove for the night. Jennifer was beyond pleased that it had been a leftover dinner tonight. There wasn’t much to be done except basic cleanup.

            “Yup,” Stiles said and then he was moving towards the sink. “Isaac’s there too. Though he doesn’t even attempt to cook. He claims that Scott and I should have some kind of expertise.”

             Jennifer could have told Isaac that that wasn't going to work. Once his brief stint of being terrified was over, Stiles never managed to focus long enough to learn anything. And Scott simply didn't care. He was too busy talking to the others to pick anything up. No wonder Stiles looked too skinny still.

            “You don’t have to,” Jennifer said as it became obvious Stiles was about to start on the dishes. Stiles waved a hand in dismissal and it made her mouth curve into a smile again.

            “So how did he pop the question, Dee?” Stiles asked, and then Dee was back to chopping and it was almost like old times. Except for-

            Jennifer saw Derek before she heard him, he was lingering in the doorway, just staring at Stiles like he might disappear. He wasn’t smiling but it wasn’t because he wasn’t happy. If anything his face was glowing, as if he were too overjoyed to even smile, too happy to do anything but look at Stiles and stand there.

            Jennifer stilled and after a beat realized that Dee must’ve seen Derek as well because she made no move to answer Stiles’ question. The scene remained frozen for a moment and then Stiles was twisted to see why it had gone silent and-

            Jennifer watched as Stiles realized who it was. The playful grin on his face sort of froze and then reanimated as something more. Derek stepped into the kitchen, still not taking his eyes from Stiles and-

            Never before had Jennifer felt like such an intruder in her own kitchen.

            “Hey,” Stiles said.

            “Hi,” Derek replied.

            “I, uh, took a shower,” Stiles supplied, seemingly randomly. “So you won’t… you know, collapse if you come too close.”

            “Oh,” Derek said, taking a few steps closer and he wanted to hug Stiles, Jennifer could see it all over his face, see it in the way his hands twitched up and then clenched at his side. “That’s good.”

            “Yeah, so,” Stiles said, shuffling. It was getting to be too much. Jennifer knew her boys, knew that they couldn’t let this moment continue, neither of them could handle it. Not now, especially not in front of people. “Dee was just about to tell me the proposal story!”

            Derek latched onto that conversation shift as if it were a lifeline.

            “Great!” Derek said, eyes finally flicking to Dee and the others. He sounded truly excited to hear it, as if he hadn’t heard this story a hundred times. As if he hadn’t actually been there when Simon broke in the middle of cooking and practically flung himself on one knee to beg Dee to marry him. For heavens’ sake, Derek was the one who had taken Simon ring shopping. “Uh. I’ll dry.”

            So Derek grabbed a towel and slid next to Stiles and if he stood a hair closer than was strictly necessary, everyone was too polite to say anything.

            It was easier after that. Dee and Simon filling the room with conversation and Stiles joining in as if he hadn’t been gone for nine months. Stories about Cora and Heather were exchanged for tales of Scott and Isaac. Simon and Dee’s love story was traded for Scott and Allison’s. Derek was quiet, but that wasn’t unusual, and his face oscillated only between utter happiness and complete joy and Jennifer assured herself that at least she was managing to hide her own emotions better than Derek. Surely she didn’t look so ridiculous.

            “Well it’s time for bed,” Dee announced almost three hours later. The dishes were long done, the others were sitting around the kitchen idly. Jennifer was only chopping fruit because she didn’t have anything else to do but standing and not doing something seemed wrong.

            “Yeah,” Simon agreed, throwing an arm around Dee as he had done a hundred times before when they were just “friends.” “Will you be here tomorrow, Stiles?”

            “Uh,” Stiles’ eyes cut from Simon to Derek to Jennifer back to Derek again and he seemed to flounder for a second. “I probably should be getting back. Scotts going to be-”

            “Surely you could stay one more day,” Jennifer interrupted because she knew Derek wouldn’t. Stiles’ eyes were still hanging on Derek.

            “Well,” Stiles started, glancing down for a moment.

            “One day wouldn’t make that much of a difference, right?” Dee added. Derek had frozen, carefully looking away from Stiles. It would almost look like he didn’t care about the answer, or at least it would if you couldn’t see that his left hand had curled into a white-knuckled fist below the table.

            “Yeah,” Stiles said. Derek almost sagged with relief. Stiles must’ve caught the motion because he glanced over and almost smiled. “Yeah, I can stay another day at least.”

            “Awesome!” Dee cried, reaching up for another hug. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

            Dee and Simon left and Jennifer told herself she was just going to finish this last melon before heading to bed herself.

            “You boys run along,” she said. She had worked in a kitchen with Simon and Dee for years. She knew when two people needed a moment alone. She didn’t know why they were even pretending.

            Though if Derek’s slightly red cheeks and Stiles’ preoccupation with his own hands was any indication, they weren’t exactly doing a good job of it.

            “I found some good books in the library,” Derek blurted. “If you wanna-”

            “Sure,” Stiles interrupted. “Haven’t had time to read in ages!”

            “Cool,” Derek said and the two were already moving towards the door.

            “Bye, Jenny!” Stiles called, taking the time to glance at her as he waved.

            Jennifer smiled to herself.

            She wondered if either of them would even remember to return to the kitchen the next day.

 

*^*^*^

 

            It was late when Derek and Stiles finally accepted that they had to go to sleep. The night before, they’d stayed up until almost three am talking and so he supposed the current time of a little after one wasn’t that late but… it felt late.

            The day had practically flown by. He’d woken up at six to go running, which meant he’d only gotten three hours of sleep but when he came back at seven, Stiles was already up if not entirely processing the world. He was still blinking sleep from his eyes and his hair was messy but he was there, sitting across from Jenny as she started breakfast, mumbling about something that Derek couldn’t quite make sense of. Judging from Jenny’s face, he wasn’t sure it made sense to her either. Stiles might have been more asleep than awake at that point.

            Still, he was at least pretending to be awake somehow and Derek had taken the fastest shower of his life so he could go sit next to him and Stiles had smiled at him and starting talking and-

            They’d just never stopped. Other people had been included: Cora and Heather had found them in the library in the morning and the afternoon was spent helping some of the garden staff that Stiles still recognized and then obviously they’d spent large chunks of their day in the kitchen until Jennifer threw them out because they were a distraction.

            But primarily it was just the two of them. And it was so strange because their letters were stiff and awkward and sometimes they were stiff and awkward but mostly it was just easy. Easy and relaxed and wonderful and-

            Derek didn’t know how he had lasted nine months. Didn’t know how he could be expected to do so again.

            Stiles was leaving in the morning. He’d been gentle but firm when Dee tried to get him to stay another day and his eyes had cut over to Derek with an apology and he smelled like regret, but conviction and Derek knew he had to go. He’d already said goodbye to the kitchen staff again, explaining that he had to leave early and it was easier to do it the night before.

            He hadn’t said goodbye to Derek. But that was okay because Derek wouldn’t have let him. He would see Stiles in the morning.

            “Mom?” He asked, knocking on the door to her study although he could already hear that she was awake and alone.

            “Come in,” she answered softly and when he walked in and saw her there, dark hair loose and flowing past her shoulders, not yet dressed for bed as if she had been waiting for him, eyes looking at him softly and sadly and lovingly, he almost turned around and left.

            But he didn’t.

            “Mom, I-” he had to stop. He didn’t know how to say this, how to bring this up, how to start this conversation even though he knew where it needed to end.

            “You told me once that humans could be part of werewolf packs,” he finally said. “I- I need to know if-”

            His throat closed.

            A part of him couldn’t believe he was doing this. But he had to.

            He needed to know if the reverse were true. If Scott was actually an Alpha, if Derek could actually do this, if this was crazy and he should just give up and go to sleep.

            “Yes,” his mother said simply, rising to stand in front of him. “Yes, you could, Derek.”

            He let out a breath but it came out sort of hysterical.

            A part of him had hoped that it was impossible. The part that couldn’t imagine leaving his mother and father and Laura and Cora and his family. His pack. The part that was screaming at him that this was wrong and he couldn’t do it and he shouldn’t do it but-

            But that part was just a part of him.

            The rest of him was practically shaking with relief.

            He could do it. He could join Scott’s pack. He could be with Stiles.

            “But it’s not the same,” Talia continued. “The bonds are there and you’ll be able to feel them, and to some extent Scott will but… but humans can’t feel pack. Not in the same way.”

            Derek nodded, feeling a rush of terror at the thought and then pushing it down. It wouldn’t be the same but he wouldn’t be an Omega. He could live with that.

            He would have to.

            Because he couldn’t live without Stiles.

            “I- that’s… that’ll be okay,” he said, wishing he sounded more confident. “I’ll… adjust.”

            “Have you and Stiles talked about this?” his mother asked, taking another step closer. His mother's emotions were usually muted, usually it was hard to smell them but her concern hit him like a wave anyway.

            “No,” he admitted. They hadn’t. They had talked about everything else. About Scott and Allison and Beacon Hills and Stiles’ secret worries about the rest of the Argents and Stiles’ impatience with how slow things were moving and his concerns for the winter and-

            Everything else. Except this. Except them.

            “I couldn’t tell him,” Derek said, twisting his hands. And it wasn’t because he hadn’t thought about it or because it hadn’t hit him until Stiles smiled softly at him and then headed to bed. This idea had come to him from the moment he recognized Stiles in the study, the idea of never again: never again could he be without Stiles. This decision had been made without thought two days ago. He’d made it a thousand times since then.

            But he couldn’t tell Stiles. He couldn’t pressure Stiles like that. To tell Stiles what he was thinking of doing, what he was thinking of giving up would have made it all too obvious. Stiles would know how he felt and would wonder what Derek expected and-

            It was too soon. In many ways, Derek should wait and for a moment he wanted to, to just put this off and do it later but-

            Stiles was needed at Beacon Hills. Derek needed Stiles. Needed to stay with Stiles. The bonds of pack weren’t meant to be stretched that far. It would cause anguish to everyone, to his mother and father, to Laura and Cora, to the twins who were still so young and who wouldn’t understand why a point in the bond they were just starting to feel had suddenly shifted and faded.

            It wouldn’t be fair to them and it wouldn’t be fair to him and even if Stiles didn’t know it, Derek thought that maybe he had started joining their pack months ago.

            “It’s too soon,” he told his mother. “And it’s- even if he doesn’t… I’d still be part of his pack.”

            That would be enough, Derek told himself, even though it was a lie.

            “Oh, Derek,” his mother said and he had to drop his gaze at the sympathy he saw there.

            “I’m sorry,” he said and then his mother was hugging him tightly. “I’m sorry.”

            He was sorry. He was sorry he was abandoning his pack, he was sorry he would never be Laura’s Second, he was sorry he was just springing this one everyone. He was sorry that this decision, which was usually made so carefully and discussed for months and planned out and- he was sorry that he was doing it like this.

            He was sorry that he couldn’t think of another way to do it.

            He was sorry and terrified and-

            “It’s okay, Derek,” his mother was murmuring, stroking his hair gently. “It’s okay.”

            “I haven’t even told Laura,” Derek realized, voice tight. He was doing this all wrong. He was supposed to be her Second. They’d never said it out loud but they both knew it was true and Seconds didn’t leave the pack. At least not like this.

            If it was different, if life was different, he could do this the right way. He and Stiles could slowly grow to love each other and their packs would get to know each other. They could take their time and talk about the decision and this part, the part where one of them left their pack, would be when both parties knew what was happening and it would probably be during the marriage ceremony. It would be so simple.

            But that wasn’t what they had. They had a world where Stiles was a slave and Derek was a werewolf. They had a tangled mess of miscommunication and old scars and repressed feelings and a thousand other obstacles standing in their way. They had a world where Derek didn’t even know if this would work out.

            But Derek had to try.

            “Oh, sweetie,” his mother said and it sounded like maybe she was smiling even though her scent was entirely comprised of sadness. “Laura already knows.”

            For a moment Derek was stunned into silence.

            “She- she does?” he asked.

            “Of course she does,” Talia replied. “Why do you think she’s been trying to spend so much time with you?”

            “To convince me to stay?” Derek asked and for a moment he thought he was going to be sick. He didn’t want Laura to hate him. She had to know it wasn’t about her. It wasn’t that Derek didn’t want to belong to this pack anymore. It was just-

            A werewolf could only belong to one pack.

            “No, Derek,” his mom said. “It’s because she’s going to miss you.”

            “But she couldn’t know I was leaving,” Derek said stubbornly. He hadn’t known he was leaving until two days ago. Until Stiles had burst back into his life and changed everything. Again.

            “Yes she did,” his mother said. “Maybe not the timing, maybe not so soon but…”

            She shook her head sadly.

            “You haven’t seen yourself these past few months, Derek. You haven’t seen how you are with him.”

            Derek was finding it difficult to breath.

            “Everyone knows,” she said. “I’ve known for almost two years.”

            “You… what?” Derek asked. That was impossible. Two years ago he and Stiles had barely communicated, Stiles still hated him and didn’t trust him and he was trying to avoid Stiles and focus on his pack and- “How?”

            “Don’t you remember?” his mother asked. “After the whipping, you challenged me over him. You chose him over your Alpha.”

            Derek stared at her. He only vaguely remembered that moment: his mother asking if she was wrong, a buzzing in his head when he insisted they should have waited for more information, the nausea and headache after that had only been alleviated when he’d obeyed an order and gone to sleep.

            He hadn’t thought about it at the time, had been too concerned with focusing on the pack and leaving Stiles and Scott alone. But-

            God, it had been almost two years.

            He couldn’t wait a moment longer.

            Instead of letting go, he hugged his mom harder.

            He was going to do this.

            “Are you sure?” she asked, leaning back to stare at him. Her eyes were solemn. “It won’t be easy. People won’t understand it. Other werewolves won’t understand it. It’ll be dangerous.”

            “Mom,” he said and his voice was hoarse. “I… I have to go with him.”

            His mom didn’t say anything, just pulled him in close once more.

            “I’m sorry,” he said again.

            Her hand was on his neck, pressing as if she were about to make a formal command and she hesitated and for a wild moment he thought that maybe she was going to order him to stay.

            Then suddenly, she had extended a claw and there was a small sting of pain that told him she had cut a thin line into his neck, deep enough only to draw blood.

            “I release you,” she said, voice soft but clear. “I release you from your duties.”

            The cut started burning.

            “I release you from your vows.”

            Derek wanted to howl but all he could manage was a sort of wordless gasp.

            “I release you from this pack.”

            There was a final flash of pain, bright and scorching and Derek’s knees buckled.

            But then it was done, the pain gone as if it had never been and Derek felt-

            Empty.

            He reached for pack, for the bonds that he had grown up with, the sense he’d always had that told him where his family was, what they were feeling, their connection to each other and to him and-

            There was nothing.

            Panic rose in him and Derek let out a whimper. It was all he could do to stay on his feet.

            “It’s okay, Derek,” his mother was saying, when he finally thought to focus on her voice. But even that was different. It was older and somehow less powerful and it was as if he didn’t recognize it.

            She was still standing with her hand carefully curled around his neck and his whole life that had been comforting and now it was just… He floundered for a moment, not sure why he was tensing, reading to spring away when all he wanted to do was collapse and sleep and suddenly he realized what it was.

            Her hand was threatening. She was an Alpha but not his Alpha and that was a threat. A threat that he had no hope of surviving because he was weaker, he could already feel it. It was as if his body had suddenly become smaller and tighter and-

            “You’re okay. Just breath.”

            Derek obeyed even though his instincts didn’t tell him to. They didn’t tell him to do anything anymore. Except maybe to run.

            “I’m so sorry, Derek,” his mother said, thumb running down his cheek as she continued to hold him up. “It’s going to be hard. Usually by now-”

            She stopped and he filled in what she had been going to say. Usually by now the other Alpha had taken over. Usually by now he would already belong to another pack and this would all be a quick part of a ceremony. Usually all he would have had to do was grit out his new vows to his new pack and he would be being held by his partner and he would never actually be an Omega because the ceremony was designed so that he would never have had to feel this. To feel alone.

            He took a breath and moved a step away, hating that the distance made him feel calmer.

            That wasn’t right. She was his mother.

            It didn’t stop him from taking another step away.

            “Derek?” she asked softly. “Are you okay?”

            “Yeah,” he said, taking another slow inhale. He was getting better. The shock was wearing off. If he thought about it, he could stop himself from questing for a pack that was no longer there. Hesitantly, he reached up to touch his neck, frowning when he realized the cut had already healed.

            That wasn’t right. Wounds from your Alpha didn’t heal.

            “It’s already gone,” his mother said, no doubt seeing the frown of confusion cross his face. “I’m no longer your Alpha.”

            The knowledge hurt and then his mother’s eyes went out of focus for a moment and he knew what she was doing and that hurt worse because he couldn’t do it. That part of his mind was just empty, frightening blankness.

            “Peter had warned the Christine and the twins,” Talia answered. “And I had warned your father but… Laura and Cora sensed it. They’re awake now.”

            Derek nodded dumbly. He’d been in the pack when his mother’s aunt had died. She was old and the bond had been fading and they’d been ready for it but it was still awful when suddenly she had just been gone. When all the emotions and warm that had come from her part of the bond had just been cut off.

            He wondered if that’s what he felt like to them. If it was like he had died.

            “Go to them,” his mother said. “Say your goodbyes.”

            “Okay,” Derek said, jerking his head into a nod.

            “Your father and I will see you tomorrow morning.”

            There was another beat and Derek realized that both of them were hesitating, lingering as if maybe if they stayed, this wouldn’t have happened.

            “Derek,” his mother started, stepping forward slowly and she was crying. Not sobbing, but tears glistened on her cheeks and Derek felt sick that he had put them there. “I know I’m not your Alpha anymore but-

            “But I will always be your mother,” she said, reaching for him again. “And I love you.”

            Derek threw himself into her arms one last time, inhaling deeply because his sense of smell was dimmer and he had to remember this, had to remember her.

            “Thank you,” he choked. She’d done it. She hadn’t talked about his duty to the pack or the foolishness of his plan or tried to convince him to stay. She’d let him go. “Thank you.”

            “I love you,” she repeated, unnecessarily and all Derek could do was nod against her.

            It was over.

            He had done it.

End Part I